Basic Measuring Tools for the Woodshop

Anything Worth Measuring is Worth Measuring Right

Although you might not give them much thought, basic measuring tools are critical to most projects. A well-equipped workshop will have a wide variety of such tools, no matter whether you’re a woodworker, a metalworker, or a general all-around Mr (or Ms) FixIt. The range of available measurement tools is impressive, but here are some basics:

Start with a Tape Measure

The most basic measuring tool for the DIYer is the everyday tape measure. These handy devices range in length from a pocket- or purse-sized six-footer up to hefty 25-foot professional models. When shopping for a tape measure, look for one that locks in place and has a sturdy blade that won’t fold over from its own weight after being extended just a few feet.

Conventional 12-foot tape

Conventional TapeCheck Price

Self-Centering 25-foot Tape

Self-Centering 25-foot TapeCheck Price

Choosing a Tape Measure

Any tape you buy should have a hook on the end so you don’t need a helper to hold it, and a scale with markings at the common on-center spacing for wall studs and ceiling joists (16 and 24 inches). For around-the-house project work, a twelve- or sixteen-foot tape is usually sufficient but a 25-footer will come in handy for decks and other large projects. For a pocket tape, get a tape that locks in place and is spring-loaded for a “power return” so you don’t have to feed the tape back in by hand.  Look for tapes that are easy to read and easy to find – a bright orange or neon green case of high-impact plastic stands up to abuse and is also easier to spot on a cluttered project area.

If most of your DIY work consists of hanging pictures and shelves and you won’t have to measure many items to length, consider a “self-centering” tape marked on one edge with the measurement and on the other with exactly half as much. We don’t recommend that one for ordinary workshop use, though.

Laser Measurement System

Laser Measurement SystemCheck Price

Gadgets Galore for Measurement

If you’re heavily into using up batteries, there are all kinds of modern measurement tools that will feed into your local landfill. Maybe you’d like a digital tape measure, one that reads the tape and shows the measurement in an LED or LCD display. If you’re a real battery-head, consider a laser rangefinder measures distances without the bother of extending and reading a tape (though you still need one to “measure twice, cut once”)

Digital Tape Measure

Digital Tape MeasureCheck Price

Any shop worth its salt is going to also need some additional “ammunition” on the measurement front, such as…

An Old Standby

The folding wooden (or, sigh, plastic) rule seems pretty “old-school” to today’s crowd with their apps and touch screens, but a folding ruler with a sliding scale in the last section remains one of the most accurate ways to take inside measurements.

And don’t forget, a folding rule is always fun to play with…

Steel for Precision

Precision is key to cutting dadoes or rabbets and for the setup of almost any power tool with a cutting head. For those exacting measurements, pick a six-inch stainless-steel number. It’ll help you attain the necessary precision, with markings down to 1/32 inch and 1mm.

Depth Gauges

An alternative is to use a depth gauge. There are several configurations of metal gauges that will allow you to home in on the correct setting for your cutting tool, though you’ll want to get slightly different ones for your router and your table saw.

At the Other End of the Scale, So to Speak

Whether you’re laying out a privacy fence or a baseball diamond, a 100-foot tape measure is pretty much an essential. Unlike the long-ago MIT students who measured the Charles River bridge by flipping a fellow student end-over end, it doesn’t work to measure distances in Smoots. After all, Boise-Cascade sells their dimensional lumber in feet…
Oh, sure, you can buy a self-retracting version – but where’s the fun in that?

You’ll Want to Measure Angles Too

Protractors are great for laying out angles when you already know that the slope is 18-1/2 degrees – but how do you find out that measurement? Without resorting to your high-school trigonometry textbook, that is?

Easy: you measure it with an Angle Finder – then you use the protractor!

With an assortment of tape measures and a couple of specialty tools, you’re set for just about any project. No matter what, though, always remember this simple maxim:

Measure Twice, Cut Once!

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